She packed frantically, stuffing stockings, pantalettes, chemises and everything else she owned into an old leather suitcase that was quickly reaching its limit. Already frayed around its zipper and seams, the suitcase strained under the weight of Brigid's life, which included her clothes, her sewing kit, several small jars of herbs, candles, ink pots and quills, and her mother's silver mirror and hairbrush. The books had their own satchel, which Brigid had filled first and strapped over her chest. Many of the books were her mother's also, and if Brigid were forced to choose between them or the mirror and the brush, she chose the books.
The horses were almost to the door. Their frenzied hoofbeats ricocheted in her ears as they raced down the unpaved road, urging her to greater speed. A few minutes more and they would be upon her.
Brigid shut the suitcase, tried to drag it, then opened it again and tossed out half the contents. Fear rattled her body like a cold wind through a broken window. Her hands shook as she zipped up the suitcase for a second time, then she breathed deeply and steeled herself. Panicking wasn't going to help her. She left her room and hurried down the short corridor, planning to cut through the kitchen and out the back door. She had no plan beyond that except to run as far and as quickly as possible through the woods that clustered around the back of her little house. She was halfway down the hall when she heard fists pounding angrily on the front door.
Gasping, Brigid almost dropped her luggage. She was out of time. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck, dampening the stiff collar of her dress. Her long, wavy hair stuck under her chin and formed a pale curtain over her eyes as she swayed nervously, uncertainly, her fingers flexing over the suitcase's handle. Two weeks ago, her mother had gone south to visit her sister. That morning, a letter had arrived, instructing Brigid to leave the house as soon as she read the words scrawled hastily on the page. But it was too late, because they were already outside.
"Open the door, witch! There's no escape for you." A man's harsh voice boomed from behind the door. After another round of violent knocks, the voice yelled, "Open it or we'll break it down. This city will not suffer your kind."
The pounding resumed and she realized that her persecutors
were battering the back door as well.
She could try to scramble out one of the windows, but there was no
telling how many of the Vox Dei presently surrounded her house. It was early evening and she lived on a
sparsely populated street, far outside of the industrial heart of
The cellar door was in the middle of the hallway and she backtracked a few steps to reach it, throwing it open as the assault from outside intensified. The sound of wood splintering echoed throughout the tiny house as she hastened down the steps, jumping off the last two and landing on the cellar's dirt floor. She propped the luggage against the wall and unfastened the book satchel's flap, withdrawing the thickest volume. She riffled through the pages until she came to the entry she needed, though it certainly wasn't the one she wanted.
She heard the voices shouting for her upstairs, heard glass jars and china plates shattering on the floor, heard the wet thump of fruits and vegetables swept off of the table and spitefully crushed. Her fingers shook as she fished red chalk from her dress pocket; she swallowed a lump in her throat as she drew in the dirt, trying to focus on her task instead of the noises from her desecrated kitchen.
Three weeks earlier she had sat across from her mother in that kitchen, eating cold biscuits and stewed oysters, stirring honey into their lemon tea, talking about her mother's elementary school students as the sun waned outside. Her mother often left the windows open during the mild autumn months, and Brigid would eat her supper with the freesia-scented breeze rustling her hair and night dress.
Her hand faltered as the realization struck her, true and strong like a clapper against a bell, that she would never enjoy that kind of repose again. Even if this spell worked and somehow preserved her life and freedom, the mist-choked road beyond was one she would walk alone. Her heart beat furiously as this horrible certainty unfurled, weed-like, in her stomach.
Needles of pain exploded in her chest and she felt faint, felt like she was kneeling on the edge of her mortal coil. Had they broken through the cellar door and shot her? She blinked hard, once, twice, three times. She was alone still, with a half-drawn sigil under her boots. But the voices were louder now, and clearer--she had precious few minutes before they found her.
She finished the drawing in spite of the crippling pain that continued to writhe in her chest, a grasping mass that reached outwards from its center in her heart to assail every other nerve in her body.
There was nothing for it except to press on—she could not stop to consider any calamity but the one directly above her. The Voice did not care that Brigid was barely seventeen and had lost her mother two days ago. They cared that Brigid’s mother was an unrepentant witch, and thus Brigid was likely one as well. That was, after all, why they had killed Anna, and why they would kill Brigid, too—unless she broke in their torture chambers, confessed, and swore to seek absolution for her sins.
And though Brigid was a young girl, and she was terrified, and she was wracked with loss and pressed upon by the merciless, vast void of a lonely and unknowable future, she was not about to suffer any fate her mother’s killers devised for her.
Brigid slipped a tiny dagger from her right sleeve. She drew the blade’s sharp edge across her palm, biting her lip as a line of blood welled up on her skin. The wound was not shallow, and she let it bleed freely over the sigil she had sketched in the dirt: a circle, divided into quarters by a cross. She made certain that several drops of blood touched each quarter, though her hand ached from the pressure as she flexed her fingers, straining her muscles to coax out the blood.
Her mother had never showed her this ritual, but Anna had spoken of it, saying that it was too risky, too dangerous, particularly for two female witches who were doing their best to blend with polite society. And Anna was, in addition to her talents with spellcraft, perfectly polite. She taught young children at the school in town; she attended services at the Catholic church and insisted that Brigid accompany her. She worked as a seamstress in the summer and had dutifully instructed Brigid in those arts as well; she rarely spoke ill of anyone and even her criticisms were slight and gentle, more teasing than remonstrating, like when Brigid accidentally dyed a petticoat algae-green. Her mother had shown dismay in her eyes but remarked evenly that the day’s work would take longer than expected, as Mrs. Stimpert was not a fish and would likely not appreciate Brigid’s choice of color scheme.
Anna’s husband and Brigid’s father, Samuel, had also been a witch; he had died in the war with the Confederacy while Brigid was still growing in her mother’s belly. Men from the town occasionally courted Anna. One or two even proposed, but Anna declined. She was all right, she said. Brigid was well in hand, the house was small and required little upkeep, and she would not, she feared, ever love any man as she had loved Samuel. All of these things featured in her demure refusals and they were all true. But it was also true that if any of her suitors saw Anna’s cellar or looked too closely at some of her cookbooks, they would realize what she was and that would be the end of her and her daughter.
Brigid didn’t know if a vengeful suitor had led to her mother’s capture. The letter said that Anna was followed out of town, but it mentioned no names. She had written that her pursuers were not long behind her; that there was no chance of escape. She had only enough time for a warning.
They were beating on the cellar door now. The veils that her mother set on it to befuddle visitors into thinking it wasn’t there were weak now that she was dead, thin as spider webs, easily seen and cleared away by the Vox Dei’s inquisitors.
Magic, as Brigid’s mother taught her, was based on will and intent, channeled through the voice and the body. Magic was a dance with the earth, both of giving and receiving. It was the fruition of a pact, made with respect. The expression of will was not a show of force; it was an offering of energy; it was currency to the spirits that comprised the world. Intent shaped the outcome of a spell, while will catalyzed it into being.
Brigid poured every drop of her will into the words she spoke over the bloodied earth. She let the desire and the terror rush forth as she called to the lower reaches of the world, and felt the powerful currents of her magic surging, forming the bridge. She had never attempted such a demanding spell, but desperation spurred her on.
They were breaking through the door. She could feel the protective spells tearing, like the hem of a dress caught on a nail.
She felt like a mouse in a field, racing to evade the hawk’s talons, planning to writhe and struggle even as they locked around her trembling belly. The sigil glowed; its outline lit like a fire, crackling and hissing. The soil churned and took on the consistency of a whirlpool, kicking up wind that drew Brigid close.
She resisted, not allowing one toe to breach the sigil’s border, lest she be pulled deep under the earth, to the other kingdom. Tears stung her eyes as the wind whipped all around, as her house was vandalized above her, as the spirits screamed below. She was frightened, wondering if she had said the wrong words, if her offering was inadequate.
She sucked in air and hugged herself, shut her eyes and imagined that her skin and muscles had turned to stone—unseeing, unhearing, and immovable.
The wind dissipated. The earth calmed.
Brigid opened her eyes and saw a man, or something like it, crouched in the middle of the circle.
The man was completely naked and had skin like an oak's heart. Black ram horns curled around either side of his head, and he had two pairs of black wings on his back. The first pair was smaller and feathered, like a bird, while the much larger and more imposing set looked to be straight off of a church gargoyle.
Up the steps behind her, she could feel the last of the wards breaking. These spells were stronger than the ones designed to shroud the cellar from notice, as they were meant to take effect upon Anna’s death—but posthumous magic was an advanced realm. Anna had been a good witch; not a great one.
Brigid took a step forward, and in the instant her shoe disturbed the sigil, the man-thing looked up and directly at her.
Where Brigid expected white in his eyes there was inky black, lit by bright amber irises. His pupils, crescent-shaped like a cat’s, constricted into slits as Brigid approached. She gasped out of equal parts fear and amazement, for she had successfully summoned a demon.
“My name is Mordecai, seventeenth prince of the
Brigid blinked and saw that Mordecai wore a cravat as well, though the pale ruffles were half-hidden by his coat’s high collar. He looked like displaced English nobility—from decades past, if not longer. Brigid would have laughed were his countenance not so terrifying otherwise.
Brigid cleared her throat, marshaling her fears. This creature was her only hope of survival, and she had always been assured by her mother that demons were not evil, that they were neutral earth spirits. Not innocuous, but not intrinsically malicious, either.
She attempted to speak with a clear, confident voice, but the words spilled weakly into the air, infused with her exhaustion, her raw grief. She had not conversed with anyone in the short hours between now and the news of her mother’s death, and her voice was thin, reticent, wanting to remain in the safe harbor of her mouth.
“I’m Brigid Carroll. Of, um, the States.”
“So I’ve crossed the
The demon spoke with a well-crafted English accent; like his clothes, it was something he wore. The practiced, drawling syllables could not disguise the rough undercurrent, the deep resonance that sounded like rocks tumbling in the earth’s stomach.
The last spell on the cellar door shattered. The Vox Dei had only to contend with the actual lock, which they would break in a matter of seconds.
“Please,” Brigid said. “They took my mother, and now they’ve come for me. Will you help?”
Mordecai strode forward. “Whyever else would I be here?”
Although her mother told her differently about demons, saying
that there were certain aspects of the world beyond the church’s ken, Brigid
recalled a sermon in that moment. The
sermon asserted that demons were tools of Satan, deceivers sent to tempt and
weaken men and women. Sent
to eat their
souls and offer them to the glory of their dark master. Anna had
disputed this--but she had never once said that demons were harmless,
Mordecai was equipped to devour—as he approached her, she noticed that his nails were claws, black and razor-like. All four of his canines were elongated into flesh-rending points.
But when he reached for her, she did not flinch or jerk away. Even if he did mean her harm, she preferred to die by her own mistake and in her own house, rather than in the confessor’s cells of some Vox Dei compound.
The door opened as Mordecai’s arms encircled her. The demon pulled Brigid tightly against him, covering her mouth with one hand and securing her waist with the other.
She inhaled sharply, but he murmured “Shh,” in her ear. She half-expected his breath to be sulfuric and rotten, but the scent was fresh and subtle, like hot mint tea. Her muscles went slack.
A young inquisitor descended the steps. Several knights followed, but the inquisitor dismissed them with a gesture at the cellar’s entrance. The knights bowed and turned back, stomping loudly into the corridor.
The Voice’s hatred for witches and magic generally had led to the inquisitors, who were simply knights with the ability to perceive and unravel the threads of energy that held a spell together. Brigid was never sure why the inquisitors held command over the knights; perhaps because they necessarily tended to lead in battles, perhaps because they were more cunning than their fellows.
Brigid thought this in a detached and academic way, remembering the sessions with her mother in which Brigid learned about what her family was and who would hunt them. Anna taught her daughter in the cellar, where there were no windows to carry the sound to unsafe places and only the one locked, shrouded door.
They sat together on a workbench, among rows of small barrels filled with herbs and several casks of wine. The long table in front of them was covered with books, writing paper, ink pots filled with myriad colors, quills, wands of rowan and ash and bone, and several knives of varying lengths. Her mother passed down recipes, rituals and history; she demonstrated the proper usage of candles, she explained symbology and the basic theories behind what a witch could do, couldn’t do, and shouldn’t do. Brigid was a serious listener and a hard worker in all aspects of her life, to the point of seeming dour and bland to her peers. But the history and practice of magic was so ancient and detailed and her mother had only recently consented to lessons, on Brigid’s fourteenth birthday—the same week she had started her monthly bleeding. Up to this point, she had worked trivial spells: rituals to enrich the soil in the flowerbeds, a charm for memory to help her in studying. No wards. No attacks.
Mordecai’s claw rested on Brigid’s lower lip, biting into the tender skin. She wondered, distantly, if she would suffer a cut upon moving; she thought she could already taste the metallic tang of her blood.
The inquisitor reached the bottom of the steps. Brigid tensed. The detachment snapped like a dry twig. Mordecai hissed, low enough that only she could hear. She didn’t move, but her eyes cast about wildly, fearfully. She knew the inquisitor’s face: he was one of her classmates. A nineteen-year-old boy named Riordan, he was lanky and tall, with dark, wine-red hair and slate-colored eyes. Around town, he was considered friendly and polite, good with children. Brigid saw him every week at church. He had, she recalled, asked her to the harvest festival. She had declined.
Riordan stalked around the cellar, fury evident in his usually amiable expression.
“This is a witch’s sanctum all right,” he said in disgust, glaring down at the worktable and the paraphernalia still piled on top of it. He swept everything off with one motion of his arm, looking satisfied as the glass ink wells shattered and the loose papers curled wetly on the damp dirt floor. He smashed the barrels and tore apart the wine casks, soaking the books in alcohol and fragments of thyme and basil.
Brigid flinched, but said not a word. Riordan behaved as though she weren’t there, and she quickly understood that the demon had somehow turned them both invisible.
Her skin was so far intact; Mordecai’s black talons touched her lightly, delicately, with no more pressure than an insect on a leaf. As they stood there, silent and immobile, she became aware that he was hardly breathing, and his body temperature was just short of boiling. He was embarrassed. She wanted to laugh, because surely a six-foot tall, bat-winged demon had no need to worry about anyone’s opinion save his own. Besides which, his claw was still pressed to her lip, though his hands trembled slightly.
Riordan sat at the worktable and took an iron stylus from his belt. He carved a rune into the wood, his strokes precise and angry; the symbol looked like a wound when he was done, so deep were the gouges. Riordan pressed his index finger to the grooves he had etched and the symbol flared to life, first burning itself and then consuming the entire table. Riordan made the sign of the cross over the ashes and whispered, “May your evil die with this cleansing.”
He looked momentarily tired, burdened. His shoulders sagged, and he dug the palm of his hand against his closed eye.
“Why?” he said. “Why are you on this wicked path? We sat in church together. We praised God!”
Brigid kept still.
Riordan strode around the room, knocking books from their shelves and stepping on the spines until they broke. He circled the area until he was in front of the altar, in front of the spell book that Brigid’s mother had written. Riordan flipped through the pages, his lip curled in disdain.
“A litany of sins! A trove of iniquity,” he declared, and began to shred the pages, tearing them until they were no longer recognizable, letting the tattered remnants fall like snow on his boots. Brigid stiffened, wanting to cry out.
“You mustn’t move, my lady,” Mordecai whispered urgently. “Else the spell will break, and he shall be upon you.”
So Brigid watched, her heart splintering, as the boy she once thought of as peaceful and kind destroyed the most significant piece of her mother that Brigid had left. Riordan didn’t stop his assault until roughly a third of the book’s pages were in tattered clumps on the floor. He muttered prayers and curses as he worked; he lacerated both hands from the paper’s edges. Finally, he took the iron stylus and drew over the symbols on the book’s cover, cutting into the leather like a hunter cleaving into a wild animal. The book burst into flames, and Riordan stood before it, breathing heavily, his own blood trickling down his wrists.
Brigid choked on her horror and her tears; she felt the demon’s embrace reluctantly tighten, heard him mutter, “Forgive me,” as he held her fast.
Riordan’s gaze swept the room for a final time.
“I’ll find you, Brigid. And whether you seek absolution or you continue to stand defiant of the church, you will be delivered. I will not rest until this is so.”
He let the words sear the silence, as though hoping for a response. He clenched and unclenched his fists. Then he turned and walked back up the steps, where he lingered.
His voice cracked. “Please, Brigid, for your sake and mine, make the right choice.”
Riordan shut the door behind him and then was gone.
Moments later, the house began to burn. The acrid smell of melting glass and smoking stone assaulted Brigid; she could not see through the film of water over her eyes. She had no time to register any feeling beyond that; Mordecai grasped her about the waist and extended his wings.
“N-no,” she managed, reaching for the remains of her mother’s things: the scattered, pulverized herbs, her mortar and pestle, the ritual knives. From the upper floors, she wanted the dresses, the perfumes, the recipe books. But these were already ash, and the flames now slid their tongues beneath the cellar door. Smoke poured into the basement; a herald of destruction to come.
“We must go, my lady,” Mordecai said, his guttural voice painstakingly soft.
Brigid let her body go slack. He was right: there was no help for it. If she tarried any longer, she would die.
Mordecai lifted off from the dirt floor and flew at the back wall. “Close your eyes and hold your breath,” he whispered. She obeyed, and as Mordecai burst through the wall, Brigid felt a flash of heat so intense she could swear her flesh had curled and blackened like meat left too long on a spit. But then the fresh, chilled air of the autumn evening buffeted her, and she opened her eyes to find that both she and her demon were intact.
They were also flying.
“I will not drop you,” Mordecai said, and certainly his arms were cinched securely around her small frame. “We will come down as soon as I find a safe place.”
Brigid nodded, but after that did not dare to move or speak or attempt to look in any particular direction, for fear of unleashing her rising panic. Mordecai’s grip on her stayed firm until her boots touched solid earth; she pitched forward, and he caught her, easing her down to a sitting position on the grass. She forcefully restrained the bile in her throat, produced from the dizzying flight and stress of everything that had preceded it.
Mordecai sat across from her, watching her with his luminous, amber-colored irises, as wide and curious as a cat’s. He had brought her to the forest that was several miles south of her old home. They were in the thick of it, surrounded by tall, thin trees that grew in clusters, trees that formed a heavy canopy in the summer, but were presently shedding their red-gold coats onto the forest floor. Brigid picked up a fat leaf; its sheen of dew slicked her hand. She traced the leaf’s veins with her nail.
“It’s dead,” Mordecai said. “But it will return to the earth and nourish the next season’s life.”
“My mother told me that before,” Brigid said.
She dropped the leaf back onto the blanket of them that lay over the brittle grass; it was a burial shroud, she thought.
She curled up against the tree behind her. Now that the danger had temporarily subsided, the grief and the uncertainty took their cues. She hid her head between her knees and sobbed.
The demon did not try to touch or converse with her again that night. Instead, he set about gathering dry wood, so that he could build a fire for her. Something to warm her, and to keep away the predators.